WASHINGTON – The company that operated the West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 29 miners this month was able to “game the system” by using a lengthy appeals process to avoid safety shutdowns, witnesses told a Senate committee Tuesday.
Massey Energy Co., which was cited 515 times for safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine last year and 124 times this year before the April 5 explosion, was able to continue mining coal. Many of the violations were for improper ventilation of methane and coal dust, the suspected causes of the worst U.S. mine disaster in 40 years.
Because of loopholes in safety laws and a backlog of 16,000 safety violation appeals, federal inspectors are unable to shut down unsafe mine sections for more than short periods. The average appeal process drags on for 600 days, allowing coal companies to continue mining despite repeated safety citations.
“You just about have to have an explosion occur” to force a closure for imminent safety violations, Joe Main, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The hearing, the first since the disaster, was attended by family members of miners killed in other mine disasters, who held up photographs of their loved ones. They heard a mine workers’ union leader angrily accuse Massey of knowingly operating unsafe mines.
“The miners who work for Massey are scared to death,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers. “They’re intimidated. This company is run like it’s 1921, not like it’s the present day.”
A representative of the National Mining Association, an industry group, told the committee that current federal regulations are adequate to ensure mine safety.
“The tools are sufficient when properly used,” said Bruce Watzman, the association’s senior vice president.
Massey, which operated the Upper Big Branch Mine under a subsidiary, was hit with $1.24 million in penalties for safety violations there between January 2009 and the April 5 disaster, but paid only $180,000 because fines are not due until appeals are exhausted. Some fines imposed in 2006 still have not been paid by Massey, which contested 78 percent of its assessed penalties in its mines in 2009.